Sports video games are a very popular genre, and anything that features the great mascot of gaming himself—Mario—is bound to triple anything’s popularity. So surely combining the two would make for unstoppable games, right? I see whether putting Mario and “tennis” together works out as well as we’d hope.

It’s been a bit of a while since we had a decent history lesson, and I think you’re all overdue. The Mario Tennis series of games arguably started with Mario’s Tennis on the failed VirtualBoy console back in 1995. The game was also arguably the first 3D Mario Tennis game. This was followed five years later by Mario Tennis for the N64, co-developed by Camelot and Nintendo. Mario Tennis was very well received, and was followed by Mario Power Tennis for the Gamecube. Power Tennis was ported to the Wii in 2009, but prior to that Nintendo released Mario Tennis Power Tour for the Gameboy Advanced in 2005. All of these games, aside from the first one, were developed by Camelot. All of this segues nicely into our review of the latest Mario Tennis game, this time for the 3DS, and also developed by Camelot.

Mario Tennis Open lets you step into the shoes of any of the major characters in the Mario universe and take on the others on the tennis court in various matches and tournaments. No story, no preamble, no ifs ands or buts. Just tennis and a few obligatory mini-games. If you’ve played a sports game in the Mario series before, you’ll know that each of the characters have their own strengths and weaknesses, and you’re bound to find a character that matches your play style. On the other hand, these strengths and weaknesses aren’t TOO vast, so if you’re an experienced player, you’ll find the character selection mostly aesthetic. On the other hand, you can use your Mii instead, and customize the stats to your whim.

You can choose any one of a number of ways to play the game, including using the lower touch-screen or the buttons to hit the ball, and using the circle pad or the motion sensors to move the characters. I must say that one really odd design decision was the mismatch between the touch-screen controls and the button controls. Lifting the 3DS brings the motion controls into play, and here the game’s AI decides where to put you, letting you concentrate on deciding and placing your shots. If you find yourself missing out on where to put your player on the court, you’re best off choosing this method of play. On the other hand, it doesn’t take long to figure it out, but it seems to reduce the challenge of playing.

During the course of each match, coloured symbols—called “Chance Shots”—appear on the ground. Match the symbol with the type of shot (either from the touch screen or from the buttons), and you pull off a super-powered shot back to your opponent. Against the AI players, these Chance Shots tend to make or break matches. The thing is, the Chance Shots are precisely the same, irrespective of which character you choose. A little touch like this would have the game far more amazing. Once you’ve figured out that the game hinges everything on the Chance Shots, it loses its challenge faster than Mario being hit by the blue turtle shell. Thankfully, the game has online and local multiplayer, and streetpass support, allowing you to (hopefully!) go up against smarter and more challenging opponents.

Visually, Mario Tennis Open isn’t anything to write…well…anywhere about. The graphics are not going dazzle anyone, even those people who played Mario Tennis on a prior console. The 3D effects aren’t spectacular at all, and in addition, the 3D turns off automatically if you engage the motion controls. Likewise, the sound and music is fairly bland, and you’ll not soon be whistling the music to yourself in the shower. It’s not that the music is terrible, it’s just forgettable.

On the other hand, if you like your unlockables, then you’re in for one hell of a treat. Mario Tennis Open throws so many unlockables at you that you’ll be left reeling at the sheer possibilities of shoes, tennis rackets, shirts, etc. that you can use. There’s one catch: you can only use these unlockables on your Mii character, and not any of the Mario characters. Once again, I see no reason for this, other than “designed by committee”. These unlockables alter your Mii’s stats on the court, however, so it’s in your best interest to go for the best of the goodies. You’re definitely bound to unlock something after just about every match, whether you win or lose, so frequent players will be rolling in stuff before too long.

The mini-games, oddly enough, are more fun than the main game itself. There are four mini-games that you can play. Galaxy Shot sees you trying to precisely place the ball on the opposite side of the court to collect bits of a star. Ring Shot sees you lobbing the tennis balls through rings that appear over the net. Passing the ball through multiple rings earns you higher scores. Ink Showdown tests your reaction time against fast balls, and the final mode, Super Mario Tennis is a version of wall-tennis against a wall that displays automatically scrolling levels from the original Super Mario Bros. Hitting the ball correctly will dispense with enemies, knock coin blocks, and so on. It’s a great amount of fun, and I ended up playing this mode a lot more than the others. Playing through the mini-games earns you coins to spend in the unlockables shop, so there’s a lot of incentive to play.

Overall, I was disappointed by just how little content, variety, and challenge there was to Mario Tennis Open, considering that it’s a full-price game. Unlockables aside, there just isn’t enough to keep players coming back to the single player modes, and if you don’t have friends with 3DSs, you’re not going to get much use out of the multiplayer modes, which is a massive pity, since there is far more fun to be had there than in the single player mode.

Final score: 5 back-and-forth prawns out of 10

Detailed Information:
Developer: Camelot
Publisher: Nintendo
Distributor: Nintendo
Platform: 3DS
Age Rating: PG
RRP: R499
Website: http://www.nintendo.co.za/NOE/en_ZA/games/nintendo_3ds/mario_tennis_open_45516.html